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How to Choose the Right Thesis Lab — Epiphany-free!

Confused young man shrugging shoulders and making face while standing against grey background

Nearly two months ago, I concluded my fourth Ph.D. lab rotation. Rotations are important components of Ph.D. training. During each rotation, a new student spends eight to 12 weeks working in a lab, getting a sense of the science pursued there, the types of questions asked and the overall culture. After completing three or more rotations, students select one lab in which to conduct their dissertation research. From the outset, I had planned on at least three rotations in computational biology. While exploring Johns Hopkins labs online, I later excitedly discovered another P.I. doing protein modeling — something I had always wanted to try — and I seized the opportunity to tack on a fourth rotation. As my final rotation concluded, I was feeling both exhaustion and panic. For the previous year, every few months I experienced a different lab with new projects, new subjects and new people. Adapting to these new environments was draining, and I was eager to be grounded in a lab with consistent work. However, my eagerness was tempered by panic regarding my looming decision. Which lab would I choose?

Speaking with my peers, it seemed like each had a well-reasoned answer for their lab choice. These included: they liked the first lab they tried and decided to stay; they liked the security of a more established lab over a newer one; the work in their current lab resonated with their interests. I heard few people express uncertainty or even acknowledge difficulty in their decision. In contrast, my experience was full of uncertainty. I had four great rotations and enjoyed the work in all of them. I felt that trying to apply the metrics that friends and advisers recommended was like splitting hairs. I would think, “Well, the research in my first rotation wasn’t as exciting as in my third, but both were good,” and, “That P.I. was a little stiff, but the other one was gone most of the time,” or even, “My last rotation didn’t give us lab lunch, so there’s that.” I felt I could be successful in any of my rotation labs.

I repeatedly attempted to eliminate lab choices by following some line of reasoning, precariously stacking my reasons like Jenga blocks while hoping they didn’t tumble down by the passing of a new consideration. I counseled with people I could trust, such as my parents, and my program secretary who knew about the administrative side of each lab. I meditated deeply on my own life ambitions. Still, no epiphany, no sudden flash of lightning revealing a path forward. Finally, I realized the terrifying truth: The decision was up to me. Empirical and qualitative metrics aside, I could choose what I wanted. While others’ perspectives and opinions were valuable, the opinion that really mattered was my own. With this understanding, I leapt into the dark and landed in a lab. Relieved that my decision didn’t send me tumbling downward to an uncertain doom, I have moved forward and now hope that it will work out for the best.

Occasionally, I still doubt my choice. I do feel grounded and happy where I am, if for no other reason than I made the best choice I thought I could. But I would be lying if I said it was anything like a love at first sight experience. The reality was much less straightforward and glamorous.

I realize I am subtly perpetuating idealized notions to other students. When incoming first-years ask me how I chose my lab, it’s easier to share a canned, well-prepared answer that glazes over my uncertainties. I cannot continue to be so illusory.

So, if you are rotating, know that if the decision-making process is full of uncertainty, that’s OK. The jump into the dark helps you grow. And to those of you who are in a lab, consider that sharing your fears might do more to help new students than sharing a false narrative of certainty.

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